9. Giotto’s Grotto. Dante’s Dodgems. El Cid’s Most Marvellous Mangonel
9. Giotto’s Grotto. Dante’s Dodgems. El Cid’s Most Marvellous Mangonel.
It is an eerie sensation altogether to be out of hours in a place that is typically so full, of noises, of smells, of activity.
They skirt first past the park’s house of horrors, Giotto’s Grotto, the front of which is adorned with a grim fresco depicting scenes of torture, poor peasants impaled upon steaks, or having their limbs ripped off and then ripped apart by rabid dogs. Still others sit quite still on diabolical machines of torture, our souls, our souls, who cares for our souls?, every bodily orifice being stretched and prodded at once by intricately carved rods of hard wood.
Well, I’ll be.
Memories, like migraines, come flooding back.
Eleven years old and still an impressible young man he, Kuper, had been groped inside the dark interior of this ‘grotto’, his fashionably long hair causing him to be mistaken, he supposed, for a rather unattractive but still squeezable girl by Jokubas, the town’s Lithuanian carpenter, only three fingers on each hand, but still, three fingers too many.
“They should put this on his tombstone so I should know exactly where to defecate.”
Kuper stops for just a second and, remembering once again those crawling hands, wonders they didn’t put him off men, or any of the sexes, for life.
But this was well before Antonio.
His Captain Ahab.
His Moby Dick.
These fantasies are interchangeable. That is the book’s power.
Call me Kuper….
Two nights before, drunk, he and Antonio had danced together to Sacha Distel’s Scoubidou, played again and again on Kuper’s dusty old phonograph, laughing, spaffing, gaffing, the whales are gaffed, speared or sliced to death.
And maybe that was why Antonio was so keen to get off. Feelings had risen in him that were not so easy to accommodate.
A silent pair, love birds looking for a nest, they slip first between King Arthur’s hefty spread legs, don’t look up boys, you don’t want to get a complex, a hundred foot fibreglass model acting as an advert for the death-defying, terrifying, tantalising, Dragonslayer Ride, toboggans shooting precipitously along undulating iron tracks, and then around the huge perfectly circular structure of Dante’s Dodgems, cars covered in grey tarpaulins, sagging with water, festooned with decaying leaves, and move deeper into the park.
Its dark centre.
Often referred to, by those whose livelihoods depended on the beastly buck generated by this World of Adventures, as the beating heart of the town.
Even bigger than a whale’s heart.
Ba-doom. Ba-doom. Ba-doom.
It is at El Cid’s Most Marvellous Mangonel that finally they come to a halt and it is here, at last, that Kuper understands, once and for all, the true intention of Antonio’s plan and that he can’t let it happen.
Not on his watch.
Don’t gangsters hobble racehorses sometimes?
And what did Brutus do?
Caesar was stabbed twenty-three times. Was that for the benefit of the Empire or Brutus alone?
He was a vainglorious little man… but what of that if your ends are met?
The concept of El Cid’s Most Marvellous Mangonel is simple yet at the same time it exemplifies the bread and butter raison d’être of theme parks around the world; the frisson of bone-tingling danger carried out in a carefully cosseted health and safety conscious environment.
Having queued, paid the entrance fee and signed the scroll-like mock ‘Last Will and Testament’ (actually a cleverly worded disclaimer absolving The Park of blame for any injury caused), the willing punter climbs confidently up a detachable mock-Tudor ladder and into the padded bowl of what is in effect a ginormous spoon.
The industrial sized spring attached to the stalk of the spoon is then wound down by means of a wooden ratcheted cog until, having reached the proscribed tension, the cog is released launching the previously spooned client into a carefully defined parabola to land upon the sponge-effect battlefield some metres distant.
In essence, El Cid’s Most Marvellous Mangonel is a catapult.
Antonio, hands on padded hips, gazes up towards the giant spoon, a far flung moon?, above him.
“We’ll wheel the whole kit and caboodle as close to the wall as we dare and then I’ll climb aboard. After you have wound the spring to its maximum tension you simply press the release and hey presto, Bob’s Your Uncle, See Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, there's me whizzing up up up into the air like a fart out of a chute and over to the other side.”
He slaps most heartily at his padded sides.
“Now can you understand the necessity of this cumbersome clobber? I'm anticipating quite a bump when I hit pay-dirt.”
Kuper sees the scene in his head. A head rolls. Arms break. Legs detach.
“You’ll be dashed to a thousand pieces.”
"You are quite missing the point."
Antonio slaps one more time at his suit.
“This gymkhana will save me from serious injury. Once I'm on the other side I run like the wind and hide myself in the maze of streets. What do you think?”
Kuper shakes his head and gives El Cid’s Most Marvellous Mangonel a rather doleful look.
“Why don't we try and think of an alternative plan, one that flies less in the face of regular physics? You'd be no use to Claudette if you crippled yourself.”
In response to this, as if the mention of Claudette has spurred him on rather than pulled him back, Antonio pitches forward with a manic glare about his eyes.
“You grab one of the handles and I'll grab the other. Then we’ll push together! What do you say? Heave Ho and how’s your father?”
The contraption, despite its enormous size, is surprisingly easy to manoeuvre. They make their way back through the park, almost exactly retracing their steps except this time they don't end up at the hole in the fence but at the park’s main gates.
Here, Antonio pulls the bolt croppers from his trousers again and puts them against the thick industrial sized padlock. He makes loud groaning noises until finally the padlock drops to the ground with an ominous clang.
“Now we have to really watch our arses. Anybody sees us with this baby they might want to join in the party.
“Crowds, by their very nature, they are crowded, draw attention to themselves.
“If we are accosted leave the talking to me. Worse comes to worst I'll rip the bollocks off anyone who gets in my way.”
The imitation Medieval wheels make a dull rumbling sound on the road surface, easy enough, Kuper supposes, for dozing residents to mistake for distant thunder.
Yet he looks hopefully towards the dark facades of the passing houses.
Antonio might be able to rip the bollocks off one or even two people but if there were six or seven…
"I've worked it out! I’m a modern day Pythagorus, although fifteen years old I would’ve liked to have sodded his theory where it stood.”
They have stopped and Antonio is studying a piece of paper. On its bottom left-hand corner is a crude drawing of the catapult, and there is a line that must represent the wall, another line, dotted, going from the catapult in an arc over the wall.
"Twenty feet is what I reckon. Last night while you were fast asleep I did some tests. You stay here while I pace it out. Just you watch the spread and heel of my legs.”
It is only then, as Antonio marches into the distance, that Kuper sees it up close, for the first time, right before them, the wall.
It is made of brick, stands thirty feet or more high and has powerful spotlights and wooden guard towers evenly spaced along it.
As fearsome and deadly as one of the waves the poor Pequod had to endure in Ahab’s relentless pursuit of the whale.
Only this is a wave I do not want to be surmounted. It is here to keep my beast within.
Kuper imagines an alternative title to his most precious tome, one that he feels sure Melville himself would have appreciated.
Moby Dick: The Whale.
Or, The Beast Within.
Feel the roar!
“Come on. Give me a bunk up.”
Unable to think, for the moment, how he may object, Kuper makes his hands into a cradle and Antonio places a foot into it.
“Wish me luck!”
And with a heft and a heave he is on the bottom rung of the ladder, scrambling up, to land himself in the spoon, only his extremities protruding, a foot, a hand and, finally, a gleaming pair of eyes as he pops his head over the rim.
An illusion of size.
Like tiny Gulliver in Brobdingnag rather than the more famous giant Gulliver in Lilliput.
"Turn that rotating wheel until it won't go any further. Then you release me with a flick of the catch. Use your wanking hand for accuracy and peak power! I’ve heard you at it some nights. Like a steam train about to blow its casket. What fun it’s all been! I don't know how to thank you for this."
With each click of the wheel Kuper imagines scenarios which do not contain Antonio. Breakfast alone. Opening the shop alone. The long dark evenings in his ridiculous rooms alone.
With my wanking hand.
Although more often than not, in reality, it is achieved with an amenable surface and rubbing alone.
He sees himself aloft on a sea of soiled tissues, sheets, soft furnishings, a bastard ship.
“I’ll be coming over the wall when I come. I’ll be coming over the wall when I come. I’ll be coming inside Claudette’s bum when I come.”
Finally the machine makes a sharper louder click and the cog will turn no more. There is an inevitability to it that is… inevitable.
“I won’t cry,” says Kuper to himself. “Antonio will only despise me all the more if he sees that I am crying.”
As he puts his sleeve up to his cheeks to dry them off Antonio’s face reappears. He is holding out both hands fingers spread.
"On ten! We’ll do the count together.”
It is on six that Kuper spies the long handled bolt croppers.
Antonio must have removed them from his trousers before climbing up onto the spoon.
On seven Kuper picks them up and on eight, without even thinking what he is doing, applies them about halfway down the now humming spring.
It is on nine as he is about to snip, cutting the spring clean in two and thus putting pay to any launch when the lever makes a clicking sound all by itself and, quite by itself, oh cursed fate, jerks forward.
Overhead there is a twang, reminiscent of the release of an archer’s bow, and Antonio is launched up up up into the air and over the wall, a satellite of love.
Image from Pixabay